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Eyes Wide Open: Perception And Reality In 'Memento' At 20
Ross McIndoe , July 31st, 2020 09:20

The fate of Tenet might be up in the air, but Christopher Nolan has been melting minds for over 20 years already. Ross McIndoe looks back on Memento, the time-bending thriller that questions reality and perception with no boundaries

“I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can't remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world's still there.”

Leonard Shelby’s plea for meaning is a natural product of his condition, a neurological disorder which leaves him unable to create new memories. As he tattoos clues onto his body and makes frantic notes on polaroid pictures, he tries to stitch together a story that can make his life make sense.

It’s a solipsist’s dilemma – the aching question of whether there is any meaning to the things we do, beyond that which we create inside our heads.

Twenty years ago, Memento marked Christopher Nolan’s arrival as a filmmaker, following his no-budget success with Following two years prior. He arrived with a fully-formed directorial identity, complete with the various tics and tastes we’ve come to know him for – maze-like story structures; a cold, emotionally distant atmosphere; the ability to merge complicated ideas and thrilling, genre filmmaking.

More than this, though, Memento revealed the key obsession which wriggles through the DNA of every movie Nolan has made since: the fraught relationship between perception and reality.

Memento is about Leonard Shelby’s quest to avenge the murder of his wife. However, due to a brain injury, he is now unable to form new memories. He knows who he is and remembers his life up until the incident, but cannot retain anything that has happened since. Every few minutes, his mind shakes clear like an etch-a-sketch, abandoning him in the middle of the scene, forcing him to create a new understanding of it from scratch.

When he resets and finds himself running alongside another man, he can’t tell who is chasing who. When a stranger greets him with a smile, he has to assume they are a friend, although they could be an enemy.

Leonard has a complete awareness of the reality around him – his senses receive data from the outside world and his mind has no difficulty processing it. However, without committing it to memory, he can’t place anything that happens into a greater context. His life now has a story, but no plot. He can work out where he is, what he’s wearing, what else is happening but he can’t figure out why, what drove him there, what he wants and what his relationships are to those around him.

Christopher Nolan has regularly described his view of the world as materialist – a universe driven entirely by physical processes. With no creator gods or karmic forces at play, the only significance to life is the one that we imbue it with, and we do that by building narratives out of our experience.

Leonard believes in an objective reality, the concrete existence of a world that does not vanish when his eyes close or his memory resets. But his condition has battered his perception of it, leaving him with only shards of narrative to patch together as best he can.

While this might seem like a problem particular to his highly specific (and slightly fictionalised) medical condition, even those of us with functioning memories face the same problem, as Leonard explains.

“Memory's not perfect. It's not even that good. Ask the police. Eyewitness testimony is unreliable. Memory can change the shape of a room. It can change the colour of a car and memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation. They're not a record.”

The idea that we’re processing reality through the unreliable machinery of our minds forms a thematic thread that can be followed through all of Nolan’s movies. His immediate follow-up, Insomnia, casts Al Pacino as a detective burned out by Alaska’s perpetual sunlight. An assignment goes wrong and he may be to blame – but as he recalls events through a mind fried by guilt, self-interest and sleep deprivation, how sure can he be of what really happened?

As Nolan’s projects got bigger, he would find even more spectacular ways to literalise this idea. The Prestige saw magicians battling one another to see who could distort reality in the most outlandish way, employing elaborate tricks to beguile the senses of their audience.

In Interstellar, Cooper pilots a last-gasp mission across the cosmos in an attempt to save humanity from their fate upon a dying Earth. As his mission takes him and his crew close to a black hole, they become victims of time dilation with different members experiencing the passage of time at starkly different rates. Those exploring a nearby planet feel hours pass, while those aboard the ship lose years – their physical world is still one and the same, but their experience of it has been drastically altered.

In Inception this idea is explored explicitly. If our minds are the conduit between our inner selves and the outside world, how well can we tell the difference between the real world and our brain’s elaborate illusions? How much does the difference matter? Dunkirk re-told the story of World War II’s Dunkirk evacuation using a tangled timeline which wove three different perspectives together. In doing so, it showed how even the most well-documented events in history, those we might treat like objective truths, can also be subjective narratives.

While his original projects allowed him to forefront this key concept, the way Nolan brought it with him on to his Batman trilogy might speak best to why he is such a singular figure in today’s cinematic landscape.

Nolan retained his own artistic identity while working within the big machine of a studio blockbuster, by building his Batman films around the same thematic core as Memento. By re-situating Bruce Wayne away from the surreal, hyper-gothic realm of Tim Burton’s universe and into something resembling the real world, the filmmaker needed a justification for Batman’s existence.

The answers lay in the power of symbols. The idea that a man could rise above himself and mean more to the world by becoming a symbol. That one individual – even one supremely well-trained individual with a bottomless bank account to call on – could only impact the world around him so much. But a symbol could inspire, encourage, terrify and terrorise those who saw it.

Memento marked the arrival of a filmmaker with an obsession to chase across settings, genres and periods, while also showing that he had located the perfect medium to explore it with. Leonard believes that facts – i.e.his polaroids and tattoos – can do the job that his damaged memory cannot. But the way we interpret facts is always conditioned by context – who presents them to us, our emotional state at the time, our biases and beliefs.

This applies to cinema itself. The image on the screen might look like a clear piece of information for us to absorb, but our interpretation of it is conditioned by everything from the angle of the camera to the stuff left out of the frame.

A cinematic phenomenon known as the Kuleshov Effect shows how the meaning we infer from a shot is impacted by the other shots it is in sequence with. Hitchock famously demonstrated it with a picture of himself smiling – when placed next to a shot of a young child playing, viewers saw him as a friendly grandfather, but when the same image was connected to a young woman in a bikini, he transformed into a dirty old man.

Every time Leonard’s mind resets, he has to frantically search the evidence around him to figure out what he has just done and what he was about to do. He has the shot of the room he was in but not the one that came before, the one that would make its meaning clear. As the viewer, we watch a scene in Memento play out before us and there seems to be no ambiguity to its meaning – we viewed it all through the cool, impartial lens of a camera, after all, so how could we not understand what’s going on? But, when the narrative loops back and the same scene is placed into a sequence of events, the meaning flips completely.

By using the ability of cinema to drastically re-contextualise an image or a scene, Nolan puts us all in Leonard’s shoes – so sure that we have all the facts right, until we realise we are completely lost.

The labyrinthian story structure of Memento introduced Nolan as a director always looking to play with what his audience could see, leading them through a mirror-maze in search of the story’s meaning. But the maze is never built just to confuse the audience – it brings each film back to something universally and innately human.

While Memento tells an exciting, outlandish tale, it also speaks to how humans perceive reality. It might feel like we observe the world through an invisible camera, cool and objective, but we all act as the director of our own life story, whether we mean to or not. We filter the outside world through the imperfect machinery of our minds, and the end result becomes our truth.

At one point in Memento, Leonard pays a sex worker to spend the night with him. She is given very specific instructions: all she must do is wait until he falls asleep, and then close the door just loudly enough to wake him. In those hazy moments between sleep and waking, Leonard is able to disorient his picture of the world just enough to believe that his wife has just left the room. That she is still alive and all is well.

“So you lie to yourself to be happy” his accomplice, Teddy, tells him, “There’s nothing wrong with that, we all do it.”

20 years later, the lessons of Memento have taken on frightening relevance – the internet today leaves us freer than ever before to pick our own facts, selecting only the polaroid snaps of reality that assure our worldview. If we don’t want to find ourselves locked in the same kind of Sisyphean struggle as Leonard, we have to confront just how malleable our own sense of reality really is.